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Mozhdeh Matin, founder and creator of the label, talks to VOZ about how she uses natural rubber from the Amazonian Shiringa tree in her winter collections.

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Mozh Mozh’s FW21 photographed by Daniela Muttini

Despite loving leather, Peruvian-Iranian designer Mozhdeh Matin is conscious of the material’s downsides. She often inherits unique leather pieces from older family members or purchases vintage pieces, but it is not a material she felt comfortable incorporating into her label, Mozh Mozh, due to its social and environmental impacts. This led her to explore the possibility of using natural rubber from the Shiringa tree to produce a sustainable leather alternative. “I wanted a new material that [felt] like leather, because [it goes well with] knitwear. I haven’t seen anyone do this before […] We are pioneers in that in fashion. There are rubber materials that are processed in factories that have a different result, but this is very artisanal, very handmade and it’s special,” Matin says with a smile.

 

When googling vegan leather one can see that the top alternatives that show up from major retailers are mostly made from viscose and polyurethane. Viscose is a semi-synthetic rayon fabric, created as a cheaper alternative to silk, and although it comes from tree wood pulp it is far from being sustainable. It goes through harsh chemical processes, uses large quantities of water in its manufacturing and often results in deforestation. Polyurethane, to put it simply is an adaptable plastic material, and although it has fewer negative impacts on the environment than other plastics, it is still plastic. Over time, more sustainable leather alternatives have emerged including pineapple and mushroom leather. The market for leather alternatives is undeniably growing alongside people’s interest in it.  Customers tend to purchase vegan leather as they believe it has fewer negative environmental impacts but considering its usual components this point is made completely obsolete. Additionally, using a sustainable alternative to leather seems to be an option that is out of reach for younger independent labels, right? Enter Mozh Mozh.

In 2015, Mozhdeh Matin founded her label Mozh Mozh, currently based in Lima, Peru. The designer had always been fascinated by textiles, this comes as no surprise due to her Iranian and Peruvian heritage. Her parents both left Iran after the revolution and eventually reunited and married in the mountainous Peruvian city of Cajamarca, where Matin and her sisters grew up. The incredibly rich Iranian and Peruvian textiles, placed all around her during her childhood, were imprinted in her mind, and shape her creations to this day. Currently, the label is stocked globally, in countries like Japan, the UK, Denmark, and the US.

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Mozh Mozh’s FW20 photographed by Andrés Altamirano

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Mozhdeh Matin Photographed by Jorge Anaya.

In 2019 for her AW19 collection ‘Introducing Shiringa (as Sustainable Leather)’ Matin presented a material she titled ‘Mozh Mozh Natural Rubber’, which she used to make luscious chocolate brown trench coats, pencil skirts and trousers. The material originates from the Amazonian Hevea Brasiliensis tree (also known as the Shiringa tree), in this case, those specifically located in Peru, close to its border with and Brazil. “After 4 years [of starting Mozh Mozh], and 10 years of me working with knits, I was exhausted of [only working with] knitwear. [Then,] I remembered this material I had in my archive, and I started to look for contacts in the Amazon,” Matin tells me, “I visited a community, and took different materials with me: woven fabrics, knits, yarns… and we [covered them in rubber]. It is still very experimental.” In Peru, the communities that work extracting the natural rubber from the Shiringa tree are known as Shiringueros. “[I work with] a family, Maria and Jorge, they’re a couple. She oversees the logistics, and he does all the practical work,” says Matin, “They are part of a community that [say] they are guardians of the trees; they don’t want a big industry to come and use them.”

 

What makes this different to other materials that come from nature but result in a non-sustainable product is the manufacturing process. The tree is cut in a diagonal direction by the Shiringueros, which results in the leaking of what Matin likes to call “the tree’s milk.” This white liquid rubber is collected into buckets which are placed around various trees simultaneously. Once a cut is made on the tree the next one must be made below the existing cut, and so on until the four sides of the tree have been incised. This is to allow the tree to heel: by the time they return to the place where the first cut was made, the tree bark has already completely regenerated. After the extraction, the natural rubber is applied onto a cotton-based fabric and smoked, or sun-dried depending on the desired finishing. The material is then brought to Mozh Mozh’s studio in Lima where it is cut and sewn into garments. Another peculiarity about the material and the process of extraction is that —much like seasonal vegetables— Mozh Mozh Natural rubber is a seasonal material. The Shiringa trees that Matin uses are only incised for their rubber between April and August, as the rainfall season in Peru would make the extraction process impossible. This also allows the trees to have a period of complete rest. “There’s a very short period that we can work this, and it goes well with the design of our winter collection. […] The tree is not getting cut [all year-round], and [the Shiringueros] respect that. It’s a beautiful cycle,” says the designer.

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Mozhdeh with Jorge and Maria, the couple she works with in the extractions of Shiringa.

Natural rubber being extracted from the Shiringa tree.

The rubber industry in South America, however, has a very dark past. Towards the end of the 19th century, the Rubber Boom took place in countries with territories in the Amazon. Within Peru, the city of Iquitos was particularly affected. The “white gold” was mainly used to manufacture tyres and became one of the country’s most profitable exports — main buyers included the UK and the US — and resulted in the enslavement of various Amazonian Indigenous communities. The communities forced to extract the rubber endured cruel working conditions and were whipped, mutilated, raped, and killed. Demand for the material was at its highest during 1885 and 1915, a time when the “rubber fever” caused outlandish amounts of money to enter the city of Iquitos. The incredibly wealthy and cruel owners of rubber companies such as Julio C. Arana —founder and owner of the Peruvian Amazon Company— built themselves sizeable mansions out of imported European materials and dressed in the latest European fashions. Arana’s company was registered in the UK and even had British directors. The Rubber Boom came to an end when seeds of the Hevea Brasiliensis tree were smuggled out of the Amazon, and grown successfully in Malaysia, a British colony at the time. The South American based rubber producers could no longer compete with the prices offered by other rubber producers. The economy in Iquitos took a plunge and the city —  alongside many other Amazonian cities in countries such as Brazil and Colombia — was once again left to oblivion. “The Rubber Boom is a very important part of Peruvian history. We are aware, and when I started to work with the rubber I [thought], ‘this is connected, I need to learn more about it.’ It was a very dark time, and it was a big genocide. The history is full of blood, it is very important to remember [this period], and rubber is connected to that history. So, for me to work with the rubber… I want to make new history, a positive one,” states the designer.

 

The garments made from the ‘Mozh Mozh Natural Rubber’ are waterproof, provide the same warmth as leather and are lightweight and slightly elastic. “It smells like the Amazonian rainforest,” Matin mentions, “leather smells like animals, this smells like the jungle.” The rich brown colour seen in most of Mozh Mozh’s natural rubber garments occurs naturally. But recently, for her AW21 collection, Matin unveiled the Natural Rubber in an array of different colours created using pre-dyed cotton fabrics as a base. Mozh Mozh is experimenting to be able to use natural dyes for this process in the future, but for now, the label works with certified cotton factories that regulate their water usage and the toxicity levels of their chemicals. This season the designer also worked with thinner cotton as a base, which resulted in an innovative translucid rubber leather.

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Mozh Mozh’s FW21 photographed by Daniela Muttini

“One of the points of living and producing a brand in Peru is to develop new designs [using] the natural resources we have around,” Matin says. The ‘Mozh Mozh Natural Rubber’ isn’t the first time Matin has cleverly done just that. For her AW19 collection, Matin utilised leather resulting exclusively from the natural death of alpacas that occurs due to the harsh weather conditions that engulf alpaca producing areas in Peru during the winter. The extremely cold temperature causes around 15% of baby alpacas to perish resulting in a loss, both emotionally and economically, for their owner. By utilising this material, the alpaca farmers (who are usually local families) decrease their financial loss and the leather does not go to waste. “It’s funny when the word sustainable is used in my work because I never start with ‘Ok, what’s sustainable? Let’s do that.’ It’s more about: what are the resources we have around?” Matin says, “If you’re smart there are so many ways you can do this.” As most items by Mozh Mozh –besides limited pieces readily available on their website and stockists — the natural rubber garments are usually made-to-order, “We don’t want to create more waste or put everything on sale. Our proposal is different. We want people to engage with what they want and why they want to wear it,” Matin states.

 

Mozh Mozh’s Natural Rubber seems to be the beginning of a more hopeful chapter in the history of the Shiringa tree and the Shiringueros in Peru. One where there is a clear thread between the origin of the material, the community that cares for it, and its final form as a garment. If anyone were to forget its source, there is no doubt the smell will be a clear reminder.